For many Americans, Thanksgiving Day is a time to come together with family, eat large amounts of food and get some time off work.
There are a lot who give back to their community by volunteering at community meals, while others prefer to spend their holiday watching football from the comfort of their own home.
Thanksgiving most often is portrayed from the vantage point of white people, those whose ancestors were the recipients of great kindness bestowed upon them by Native Americans that shared their harvest’s bounty with them, later teaching the first European settlers how to survive in the rough country that greeted them upon their landing at Plymouth Rock.
For that kindness, the settlers repaid the Native Americans by taking the land they lived upon — using it to pillage its natural resources — and spreading disease amongst the tribes. The indigenous peoples here found themselves trampled upon and killed for reasons none other than the desire of the newcomers to “tame” the wild lands and the “savages” that inhabited the fledgling country.
So, when Thanksgiving is celebrated as a joyous occasion by many, it provides a not necessarily positive reminder for Native Americans.
As we approach the federal holiday this year, we at the Ithaca Times were left wondering how Native Americans perceive Thanksgiving. To that end, we reached out to Tadodaho Sidney Hill, leader of the Onondaga Nation, which is located about an hour from Ithaca and just south of Syracuse, for his insights into the celebration.
Hill said Thanksgiving is somewhat in line with ceremonies Native Americans have been conducting for centuries.
“I think it goes along with our ceremonies — that’s probably what it’s derived from,” he said. “Throughout the seasons, we give thanks. Ceremony is part of giving thanks for the things that have been handed down for us to survive.
“We have out planting ceremonies, our corn and bean ceremonies throughout the season,” Hill added. “Our harvest ceremony is like Thanksgiving, for all the stuff that we’ve planted.”
The Onondaga Nation recently conducted its harvest ceremonies, he said. The similarities behind the intent for Thanksgiving are clearly rooted in Native American tradition.
“We give thanks, especially for all the things we planted that provide for and feed our families,” Hill said. “It’s kind of like the Thanksgiving idea; I’m thinking that’s where they got it from, they picked it up from our ways.”
Native Americans are continually giving thanks to nature; it’s a year-round, everyday mindset.
“We just give thanks for all the seasons, for what creation has given us,” Hill said. “The changing of the seasons and being in this part of the land, we give thanks for all the seasons — the spring, the summer, the fall, the winter. All of those things are part of our whole environment.”
It’s hard to dispute that, if not for the Native Americans near the Pilgrims first settlement, the first pioneers existence would have been a much less sure bet. Hill thinks the gratitude from the Pilgrims for the native peoples’ sharing is what led to the creation of Thanksgiving — at least in its first celebrations.
“I think the fact that when the Europeans came, our people helped them, they fed them,” he said. “They were appreciative of this, so they integrated it into their ways, I guess, to their society as a way of giving thanks for that.
“I’m not sure what the history of Thanksgiving is, to how it became a national holiday (in the U.S.),” Hill added. “To us, to Native Americans, it’s a reflection of some of our culture in European, in American culture.”
While Americans take one day to officially mark giving thanks, Hill stressed that it’s important to be thankful for everything one has, all of the time. The Onondaga harvest celebration is simply a larger ceremony to shine a light on everything that goes into providing for one’s family.
“There are plenty of things we get from nature, things that are there for us — all you have to do is go out there and do it,” Hill said. “Nature provides it to you, but it means a lot of work. Planting, hunting and fishing, all those things take work. We celebrated because we’re thankful we are healthy and can do those things.
“The reward is to have that healthy food and give thanks for that,” he added, “but that is only a part of our whole cycle of giving thanks in a year.”
Native American culture is stepped in reverence for nature, and honor for the opportunities nature provides for people. That’s why, Hill said, it is important to give thanks for that.
“We can’t give thanks enough,” he said. “It’s just there. We’re given this good air, the waters, the land, to provide for our families.”
The continued defacement of our environment is deeply troubling to Native Americans, Hill said, adding that it offers a pointed example of how different philosophies of Native Americans are from those leading the United States today.
“We just wonder what the state of the water is now in the country. There are places where you can’t eat the fish. How does something like that happen when it’s supposed to be for everybody. It’s everybody’s water. Who has the right to pollute it, to damage it for everybody else? There are a lot of things to be thankful for — but there are a lot of things out of balance,” he said. “Society takes so much, sometimes it leaves, in the aftermath, there’s nothing left. It takes a long time for nature to heal itself from some of the damage. You take a little bit and you give back. Our life was very sustainable. We wouldn’t think about taking all the woods down, we’d use some of it. We wouldn’t take all the fish. You take for what you need and provide for your community. As far as wiping species out, it doesn’t make sense.
“It was a concern for the next generations. You don’t take all the fish, because what’s going to be left for the next generation?” Hill added. “That was sustainable. Thinking about what’s going to happen downstream, what’s going to happen to the next generations.”
It’s not just pillaging the natural resources that the U.S. government has allowed to happen — it also facilitated the taking of the lands inhabited by Native Americans, using them for monetary gain, while shoving the first peoples onto reservations that offered just a shadow of the space to which they were accustomed to living.
“There was a lot of land. What’s happened now, there are so many people, and they’ve taken the land not knowing what to plant, not knowing what to hunt,” Hill said. “There are people who have a tough time of surviving even for a week or two. Just thinking of these storms that just happened, most people are very vulnerable to natural happenings.
“It grounds people a little, to know they should be thankful and they do have a lot to be thankful for,” he added. “But, they have to protect those things as well, not just for the next generation, but for your family now. At least they’re thankful one day, not that they’re not thankful, but that they set some time aside to say ‘We’re thankful for all these things that have been given to us.’”
Reflecting on the U.S. version of Thanksgiving, Hill said, the first celebration was about sharing the bounty of nature gathered by Native American with the early settlers.
“It’s everybody’s right to appreciate, in whatever way you want to,” he said. “Everybody talks about the Pilgrims and Indians coming together and eating and helping. There was plenty to share at the time and we opened this up to our brothers. Now we’re in a state where we have very little left and what little left that we have is still trying to be taken away from us.
“Whether it’s our identity, our land, our language, our way of life — this is human rights and those are not being allowed, as what we think is our right. It is not important to other people,” Hill added. “We have our land rights cases and we’re not being given that opportunity. We had treaties to protect our lands, we have up a lot to maintain just what we had, and those treaties have been broken. Now there’s no recourse for the damages to our people. To offer us money for it, money only lasts so long, but the land and the water and everything that goes with it — if it’s taken care of, you can take care of your people.”
He doesn’t, however, spend time thinking angrily about Thanksgiving celebrations, the sort that will take place all over the U.S. on Thursday, Nov. 22.
“I’m not angry. I try not to be angry, because then that takes away from who you are,” Hill said. “I think about things we can do, to work together and iron these things out. I just think it’s something we, as native people, and the Europeans can share. We still think of sharing, that’s very positive for people.”
And, he said, it reinforces the message that we should be thankful for what we have and take care of those who may not have as much as we do.
“Thanksgiving is to be thankful, which is a good thing, but you also have to be responsible. There are a lot of homeless people. How does that happen? That there are so many homeless people in such a rich and powerful country,” Hill said. “Sometimes it seems like people are too much for themselves, and there is just a small circle of people reaching out to the rest of the people who don’t have the ability to provide for themselves, the sick or the old or the young.
“It’s up to the able people to share and to help. That’s all part of Thanksgiving, too, that you share with your family, to share with people that, for whatever reason, aren’t able to have a hot meal or a warm house,” he added. “We had it, and we shared it and we taught the people how to survive here. They were coming from a different land and we showed them: ‘This is how we survive. You need to learn this and you will be able to help your people and yourselves the next year.’ That is all part of Thanksgiving — giving thanks for what you have and sharing with those that don’t.”
A Little History
The Onondaga Nation is a member of what is now commonly referred to as the Haudenosaunee (a name translated as the “People of the Long House”), an alliance of native nations united for the past several hundred years by complementary traditions, beliefs and cultural values.
Sometimes referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations, the Haudenosaunee originally consisted of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations. The Tuscarora migrated from the south and peacefully joined the Confederacy in the early 1700s, bringing to six the number of nations united by Haudenosaunee traditional law.
The Haudenosaunee is actually six separate nations of people who have agreed to live under the traditional law of governance called the Great Law of Peace. Onondaga is considered to be the capital of the Haudenosaunee.
Like other member-nations of the Haudenosaunee, information from the Onondaga Nation notes it survives today as a sovereign, independent nation, living on a portion of its ancestral territory and maintaining its own distinct laws, language, customs and culture. Today, the Onondaga Nation consists of a 7,300-acre territory, on which it maintains its sovereignty and operates outside the general jurisdiction of New York state.
The Nation is still governed by a Council of Chiefs, selected in accordance with its time-honored democratic system. In the same vein, many Onondagas practice traditional ceremonies and adhere to religious philosophies and social customs that long predate contact with Western civilizations. Aspects of this ideology have been incorporated into America’s legal system, as well as into its culture. Personal and societal consideration of the Seventh Generation is but one example of a Haudenosaunee worldview that has informed, enhanced and enlightened American and other national cultures.
As an independent, sovereign government, the Onondaga Nation government does not pay income, sales, or excise taxes to New York State or to the federal government, nor does it receive any of the benefits paid for by these taxes. Unlike several other New York native nations, the Onondaga Nation has chosen not to become involved in the casino business or other gambling ventures; instead, the Nation operates a tax-free smoke shop, which funds many community projects, including the repair of homes, a reservation water system, a healing center, and the recently-completed Onondaga Nation multi-purpose arena. Opened in 2002, the 1,900-seat ultra-modern facility boasts more than 40,000 square feet, and doubles as a facility for both hockey and lacrosse, not only for Onondaga citizens, but for neighboring town, city, high school and college teams as well.